National Press Club

Jailed Iranian journalist receives UNESCO Freedom of the Press Award

May 4, 2011 | By Robert Webb |

Bob Boorstin, Premesh Chandran, Nicolas Kayser-Bril, Amadou Mahtar Ba (speaking), Richard Tofel speak about new media business models during World Press Freedom Day on May 3.

Bob Boorstin, Premesh Chandran, Nicolas Kayser-Bril, Amadou Mahtar Ba (speaking), Richard Tofel speak about new media business models during World Press Freedom Day on May 3.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Iranian journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi became the 2011 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Laureate at a ceremony May 3 in the packed National Press Club ballroom in the first such award of the prize in the United States.

NPC President Mark Hamrick called it a high honor and historic day for the Club. The award drew a salute via video from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Delegates also adopted "The Washington Declaration," a four-page document aimed at stronger protections globally for freedom of the press. It will go to UNESCO for final approval.

Zeidabadi remains in an Iranian prison where he was sent for a six-year term after the 2009 election. He was one of 40 other journalists and reformers charged with trying to overthrow the government in a "soft revolution." He also faces five years of internal exile after his term.

Sonali Samarasinghe Wickrematunge, whose Sri Lankan newspaper editor husband, Lasantha, received posthumously the 2009 UNESCO and NPC Freedom of the Press awards for his anti-government corruption crusade, also attended the Club's press freedom events.

The audience watched the video message she sent Zeidabadi.

"Your example and courage are admired by millions across the world," she said. She also said that his award would impress on the Iranian government the wrong they did him.

The award was created in 1997 and named after Colombian journalist Guillermo Cano, who was murdered by hired killers in 1986 in front of his newspaper, "El Espectador," in Bogata. He had denounced and crusaded against the drug trafficking mafia.

Former editor-in-chief of the Azad newspaper, Zeidabadi was arrested in 2000 when "his campaign for civil rights gained momentum at that time with the publication and wide distribution of an open letter, written in prison, in which he denounced the treatment of jailed journalists," according to UNESCO.

The award was announced by Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, as the climax of a day in which prominent journalists and other writers from many countries painted a portrait of the difficulties many in their ranks face in trying to "tell truth to power."

Some 500 or more journalists were killed in the last decade, many others injured.

Typical was Miklos Haraszti, a Hungarian writer, editor, professor and human rights promoter, who emphasized the importance of "quality journalism for the parliament of public opinion.There is no parliament of public opinion without quality journalism." He called the blogosphere "a mix of trash and entertainment."

Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, was quick to disagree about online citizen journalists.

"People are looking for a golden age of journalism," she said. "I have seen better journalism in online newspapers than I ever did in (traditional) newspapers."

A Netherlands-based Tunisian blogger and anti-censorship activist, Sami Ben Gharbia, pointed to mobile phones as powerful tools for making more transparent what is happening in across the world.

Think of it, he said, "six billion mobile phones -- 12 billion pairs of eyes -- on what is happening." He called attention to the "citizen videos on their mobile phones." Gharbia also cited the key role of radios in citizen journalism.

Russian Gregory Shvedov, editor-in-chief of "Caucasian Knot," urged traditional media to give voice to citizen journalists "who want to share their stories."

He pointed to Chehnya, where citizens were shot last June "with paintballs." Katrin Vercies, co-founder of Mobile Active in Germany called for a "global network initiative for mobile phones."

The Washington Declaration emphasizes that "access to information through all forms of media and digital platforms is critical for an informed electorate and thus for healthy participation in democratic life and transparent governance."